Postcards from the Field

--Field Work / Field Talk--

To: The Readers of 21COE Project Web Site stamp

An old Sama fisherfolk mending his nets below a raised floor
(offshore from Labuhanbajo)

In January, taking advantage of a pause in my work in Jakarta, I visited the island of Flores. My aim, as usual, was to visit the Sama villages and collect their historical narratives. The Sama are maritime-oriented population widely dispersedly from the southern part of the Philippines southwards to Flores, the nearest Indonesian island to Australia, and to the farther eastern islands. In Flores, they are concentrated in the Labuhanbajo region, the western tip of the island, and in the Maumere region in the north. Their villages in the two regions are situated on the shores or in the small islands surrounded by coral reefs. A variety of fishing industries are a main source of their income.

I was keen to visit Flores, firstly due to my interest in the history of the Sama migration. Colonial records show that in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Sama "pirates" of the southern Philippines fled from attacks on them by the Spanish navies and migrated to the northern coast of Flores. Across the sea from the southern Philippines to eastern Indonesia, it seems that there was a migration network, created by the Sama who had been moving as much as possible in their attempts to avoid being boxed in by Western colonial expansion. I was interested in tracing their movements to find out whether or not the language and origin myths of the southern Philippine Sama had been preserved among the Sama of Flores. Unfortunately, the language and the myths that I encountered here were considerably different from those of the Philippines. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to have made contact with the southern tip of the 1,800-kilometre wide sea network that had been formed by the Sama over a hundred years before.

The second purpose of my visit to the island was to meet the Sama fishing seafarers who experienced long-distance fishing expeditions south-eastwards from Flores and hear their stories regarding the expeditions. The Sama have long engaged in a seasonal sailing from here to the south and east in search of fishing grounds for sea cucumbers, trochus shells and shark's fins which could be exported mainly to China. This fishing zone stretched from Sulawesi to as far south-east as the coastal waters of northern Australia. Flores is one of the bases for these fishing activities.

From the late 1980s, along the northern coast of Australia, there was a series of incidents in which Sama fishing boats were seized for "illegally" crossing into Australian territorial waters. Despite these incidents, the Sama continued to sail their boats into the territorial waters in an attempt to gain access to the rich fishing grounds. They searched the movements of the border patrol boats, so as to outwit them, and adopted various tactics such as escaping into waters that were too shallow for the patrol boats to enter. These incursions led on to an additional eastwards expansion of the Sama's migration network, to places such as Aru island in the east and Roti island in the south, spreading Sama activity to the very limits of Indonesian national territory. Although I stayed in the village for a short time, I was able to hear the excited accounts on the historical developments of their fishing expeditions. What do the Sama think of artificially drawn national boundaries, and how do they propose to come to terms with them? For further consideration of issues like these, it looks as though I will have to visit Flores again.

From: NAGATSU Kazufumi (Division of Southeast Asian Area Studies)
21st Century COE Program -Aiming for COE of Integrated Area Studies-  HOME